I know it’s only been a day, but are we ready to talk about Bel-Air? If not, that’s fine. After all the series literally debuted this morning on Peacock (first episode streaming for free!) with the release of the first three episodes and with them all being an hour in length (streaming service hour, not network hour including commercials), it will probably take folks time to come up with an opinion of the Morgan Cooper-directed, Will Smith-backed reimagining of the classic sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Unlike the original, this one is a drama (think All American on steroids) that takes the characters we all loved and gives them another level of angst and feelings… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a different thing. Let’s put it this way: this new version is, much like the premise of both shows, the visitor nobody really asked for but after a while aren’t mad they’re in the house. But even with that said, there’s a LOT going on.
I promise not to spoil it for those who haven’t watched yet, and that says something because ideally we know the premise based on the original: Will Smith “got in one little fight and his mom got scared” so he moved “with his aunt and uncle to Bel-Air.” That part is still totally true. It’s how he gets there, and the family dynamics once he arrives, that give the drama a very different starting off point.
Will is played by young actor Jabari Banks (fortunate last name) with real flash and likeability. Like, if this was the first time we heard of the character Will, he’d be more than OK taking us on a trip into his life. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, especially since they’re all based off of ones we’ve seen before.
Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) is still running for political office, Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) is an artist/art professor (there’s one scene with her where I almost stood up and applauded… you’ll know the one), Hilary (Coco Jones) is an aspiring chef/influencer, Jimmy Akingbola gives house manager (no butler there) Geoffrey the swagger he always deserved, Jazz (Jordan Jones) is here, and young Ashley (Akira Akbar) is so far, just adorable on camera.
However, it’s the casting of Olly Sholotan as Carlton, who in this iteration is a big man on the campus of Bel Air Academy which immediately forces Will into his large shadow, and that alone may end up giving Bel-Air its legs. His “relationship” with his cousin is what makes the show go, and if it continues to be written well, is what might keep it around for more than one season. From the first episode we all realize this Carlton is very different, on like a bizzarro tip, and Sholotan more than embraces the role.
There are definitely a few schmaltzy moments in the first three episodes that would make even the writers at the aforementioned CW show All American snicker, but thankfully it doesn’t overpower the material. Also, as is my wont when I start a series I do already have a favorite character, Lisa (played by Simone Joy Jones), who is introduced to us in a more creative way than the original (oh Hi, Nia Long).
Overall Bel-Air is off to a somewhat solid start, meaning I’m still looking forward to what happens next, which is saying something since I, like the rest of us, pretty much watched this story play out before.
The first three episodes of Bel-Air are streaming on Peacock, with new episodes every Thursday.